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In fiction, a MacGuffin (sometimes McGuffin) is an object, device, or event that is necessary to the plot and the motivation of the characters, but insignificant, unimportant, or irrelevant in itself.[1][2][3][4][5] The term was originated by Angus MacPhail for film,[2] adopted by Alfred Hitchcock,[1][2][3][4][5] and later extended to a similar device in other fiction.[4]

The MacGuffin technique is common in films, especially thrillers. Usually, the MacGuffin is revealed in the first act, and thereafter declines in importance. It can reappear at the climax of the story but may actually be forgotten by the end of the story. Multiple MacGuffins are sometimes derisively identified as plot coupons.[6][7]

History and use[edit]

The use of a MacGuffin as a plot device predates the name MacGuffin. The Holy Grail of Arthurian legend has been cited as an early example of a MacGuffin. The Holy Grail is the desired object that is essential to initiate and advance the plot. The final disposition of the Grail is never revealed, suggesting that the object is not of significance in itself.[8]

The "Maltese Falcon" statuette from the film of the same name

The World War I-era actress Pearl White used the term "weenie" to identify whatever object (a roll of film, a rare coin, expensive diamonds, etc.) impelled the heroes, and often the villains as well, to pursue each other through the convoluted plots of The Perils of Pauline and the other silent film serials in which she starred.[9] In the 1930 detective novel The Maltese Falcon, a small statuette provides both the book's title and its motive for intrigue.

The name MacGuffin was coined by the British screenwriter Angus MacPhail.[10] It has been posited that "'guff', as a word for anything trivial or worthless, may lie at the root".[11]

Alfred Hitchcock[edit]

Director and producer Alfred Hitchcock popularized the term MacGuffin and the technique with his 1935 film The 39 Steps, an early example of the concept, in which the MacGuffin is some otherwise incidental military secrets.[12][13] Hitchcock explained the term MacGuffin in a 1939 lecture at Columbia University in New York City:

It might be a Scottish name, taken from a story about two men on a train. One man says, 'What's that package up there in the baggage rack?' And the other answers, 'Oh, that's a MacGuffin'. The first one asks, 'What's a MacGuffin?' 'Well,' the other man says, 'it's an apparatus for trapping lions in the Scottish Highlands.' The first man says, 'But there are no lions in the Scottish Highlands,' and the other one answers, 'Well then, that's no MacGuffin!' So you see that a MacGuffin is actually nothing at all.

Interviewed in 1966 by François Truffaut, Hitchcock explained the term MacGuffin using the same story.[14][15] Hitchcock also related this anecdote in a television interview for Richard Schickel's documentary The Men Who Made the Movies, and in an interview with Dick Cavett.[16]

Hitchcock also said "The MacGuffin is the thing that the spies are after, but the audience doesn't care."[17] Hitchcock's term MacGuffin helped him to assert that his films were in fact not what they appeared to be on the surface.[citation needed]

George Lucas[edit]

In contrast to Hitchcock's view of a MacGuffin as an object around which the plot revolves but about which the audience does not care, George Lucas believes that "the audience should care about it almost as much as the dueling heroes and villains on-screen."[18] Lucas describes R2-D2 as the MacGuffin of the original Star Wars film,[19] and said that the Ark of the Covenant, the titular MacGuffin in Raiders of the Lost Ark, was an excellent example as opposed to the more obscure MacGuffin in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom and "feeble" MacGuffin in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade.[18]

Yves Lavandier[edit]

For the filmmaker and drama writing theorist Yves Lavandier, in the strictly Hitchcockian sense, a MacGuffin is a secret that motivates the villains.[20] North by Northwest's supposed MacGuffin[21] is nothing that motivates the protagonist; Roger Thornhill's objective is to extricate himself from the predicament that the mistaken identity has created, and what matters to Vandamm and the Central Intelligence Agency is of little importance to Thornhill. A similar lack of motivating power applies to the alleged MacGuffins of the 1930s films The Lady Vanishes, The 39 Steps, and Foreign Correspondent. In a broader sense, says Lavandier, a MacGuffin denotes any justification for the external conflictual premises of a work.[22][failed verification]


Alfred Hitchcock popularized the use of the MacGuffin technique.[23] Examples from Hitchcock's films include plans for a silent plane engine in The 39 Steps (1935), radioactive uranium ore in Notorious (1946), and a clause from a secret peace treaty in Foreign Correspondent (1940).[24][25]

A more recent MacGuffin is the briefcase in Pulp Fiction (1994), which motivates several of the characters during many of the film's major plot points but whose contents are never revealed.[26]

George Lucas used MacGuffins in the Star Wars saga: "[George Lucas] had . . . decided that the Force could be intensified through the possession of a mystical Kiber Crystal [sic]—Lucas's first, but by no means last, great MacGuffin."[27]

In the 1998 film Ronin the plot revolves around a case, the contents of which remain unknown, which at the end of the film is said to have led to a historic peace agreement and an end to the Troubles in Northern Ireland.[28]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b Brewer's (1992)
  2. ^ a b c Harmon (2012)
  3. ^ a b Knowles (2000)
  4. ^ a b c Room (2000)
  5. ^ a b Skillion (2001)
  6. ^ Lowe, Nick (July 1986). "The Well-Tempered Plot Device". Ansible. Berkshire, England (46). ISSN 0265-9816. Archived from the original on July 28, 2013. Retrieved January 2, 2014.
  7. ^ Sterling, Bruce (June 18, 2009). "Turkey City Lexicon – A Primer for SF Workshops". Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America. Archived from the original on January 7, 2014. Retrieved January 2, 2014.
  8. ^ Lacy, Norris J. (Winter 2005). "Medieval McGuffins: The Arthurian Model". Arthuriana. 15 (4): 53–64. doi:10.1353/art.2005.0044. S2CID 161632566.
  9. ^ Lahue, Kalton C. (1968). Bound and Gagged: The Story of the Silent Serials. Oak Tree Pubs. ISBN 978-0-498-06762-4.
  10. ^ McArthur, Colin (2003). Whisky Galore! and the Maggie: A British Film Guide. London: I.B.Tauris. p. 21. ISBN 978-1-86064-633-1. Archived from the original on 2017-12-24.
  11. ^ John Ayto and Ian Crofton (2006). Brewer's Dictionary of Modern Phrase & Fable (2nd ed.). p. 467.
  12. ^ Marshall Deutelbaum; Leland A. Poague (2009). A Hitchcock reader. John Wiley and Sons. p. 114.
  13. ^ Digou, Mike (October 2003). "Hitchcock's Macguffin In The Works Of David Mamet". Literature Film Quarterly. 31 (4): 270–275.
  14. ^ Truffaut, François (1983). Hitchcock/Truffaut. Simon & Schuster. ISBN 9780671604295. Archived from the original on 2016-01-02.
  15. ^ Framing Hitchcock: Selected essays from the Hitchcock annual. Wayne State University Press Detroit. 2002. pp. 47–48. ISBN 0814330614. Archived from the original on 2016-01-02.
  16. ^ cavettbiter (2007-10-22), Alfred Hitchcock was confused by a laxative commercial, archived from the original on 2015-05-03, retrieved 2017-09-03
  17. ^ Boyd, David (1995). Perspectives on Alfred Hitchcock. G. K. Hall. p. 31. ISBN 9780816116034.
  18. ^ a b "Keys to the Kingdom". Vanity Fair. February 2008. Archived from the original on January 2, 2014. Retrieved January 2, 2014.
  19. ^ Star Wars (1977) Region 2 DVD release (2004). Audio commentary, 00:14:44 – 00:15:00.
  20. ^ "Excerpts from Yves Lavandier's Writing Drama". Archived from the original on January 18, 2014. Retrieved January 2, 2014.
  21. ^ Curtis Marez (2019). University Babylon: Film and Race Politics on Campus. Univ of California Press. p. 166. ISBN 9780520304574.
  22. ^ "Yves Lavandier's Writing Drama". Archived from the original on 2013-11-13. Retrieved 2014-01-02.
  23. ^ "MacGuffin". The Free Dictionary. Farlex, Inc. Retrieved 2017-12-07.
  24. ^ Walker, Michael (2005). Hitchcock's Motifs. Amsterdam University Press. p. 297. ISBN 978-90-5356-773-9. Archived from the original on 24 December 2017. Retrieved 2017-09-02.
  25. ^ , "Hitchcock's MacGuffins" [1]
  26. ^ Lloyd, Brian (10 April 2019). "Seriously, what was in the briefcase in 'Pulp Fiction'?". Retrieved 1 September 2021.{{cite web}}: CS1 maint: url-status (link)
  27. ^ Jones (2016, p. 189)
  28. ^ "Top 10 Movie MacGuffins". IGN. 2008-05-20. Retrieved 2022-03-25.


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